Monday Matters (May 23, 2022)

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If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.

Colossians 3:1,2

 

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10:17-22

 

Love people. Use things. The opposite never works.
-the Minimalists

Where is your treasure?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-Matthew 6: 19-21

We hear this passage each year on Ash Wednesday, as it launches the season of Lent, a time for self-examination. The punchline to the gospel reading about the connection of treasure and heart hits me hard every time. It swirls around in my head, often in an unsettling way.

Jesus really knows how to get to us. With his statement about treasure and heart, we are called to take the following questions through the season of Lent, and beyond. We’re called to ask: Where is our heart? What do we really treasure?

Our treasure may be stuff: Fine collectibles. Savings, investments and assets. Highly valued toys. Our treasure may be less tangible. Our reputation, relationships or resume. Our pride at accomplishment. Our distasteful sense of being better than somebody, anybody.

Jesus’ challenging words make me think about related counsel from a desert father, Abba Poemem. To his students, he offered this timeless challenge: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. Which leads back to the question: Where are we giving our hearts?

I found myself wondering if what Jesus was really saying was that we do not always own our treasures. We may think we do, but often, they own us. They shape us. They make us behave in ways we would not otherwise behave.

Case in point: The history of slavery in our nation. Clearly, many people over those centuries knew it was horrific, that what they were doing was out of line with God’s intention for all people. But slavery was key to the economic health of the nation at the time. That sense of treasure made people behave in ways they would not have otherwise behaved. It made people make excuses, twist logic and deny fact to hold on to wealth. Change was not in the cards. I’m wondering in what ways do we do the same things these days. Any thoughts?

Above, find the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man. It says Jesus loved this guy. That is not said of every person Jesus encountered. Not that he didn’t love them all, but there was special affinity here. As the young man asks what was required of him, he shared the ways he’d done all the right things, checked all the boxes. Jesus says there’s just one thing more. If he wanted to follow Jesus he needed to shift his treasure, surrendering his material possessions. He needed a change of heart that meant thinking in new ways about his treasure.

The young man can’t make the shift. He goes away sad. Jesus is sad. The whole thing is sad, as sad as the many ways that we give our hearts (our souls, our minds, our strength) to that which will not satisfy our hearts, to things that will not remain, to things that are not good for us.

While there’s plenty of challenge here, there’s also opportunity. It begins with gaining clarity about where our treasure lies. There are a number of measures we can consider. Start with a look at credit card statements. Look at calendars. They may not tell the whole story, but they offer insight into where we’re giving time, talent and treasure.

When it comes to where we locate our treasure, a lot of us diversify. We are pulled in many directions. That may be a good investment strategy, but when we take it to the level of what we worship and who we follow, we may uncover competing vocations calling to us. We can be about everything and about nothing. How can we gain more focus in what we treasure?

Later in this sermon, Jesus will say seek first the kingdom of God, with the promise that all the rest will fall in place (my paraphrase). I’m feeling like the answer to all this is to think each day about how we can with gladness and singleness of heart give our heart to the kingdom, the rule, the reign of God. How can we give our heart to the way of love articulated by Jesus, that which will satisfy our heart? Jesus promises that when we do that, everything else we need will be added. Dare we believe it?

Let me close with two brief parables to chew on today: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44, 45)

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (May 16, 2022)

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If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.
Colossians 3:1,2

 

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

 

Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food.
Dallas Willard

 

The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.
Benjamin Franklin

Fasting

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
-Matthew 6: 16, 17

Fasting is all the rage. In many corners of our culture, we’ve come to realize that this ancient practice, part of many faith traditions, is a good idea. In the Christian tradition, fasting is often associated with giving something up for Lent. It may simply suggest deprivation. Truth be told, at least in my own experience, the practice of fasting in Lent can be a bit like beating your head against a wall. It feels so good when you stop. It can also become a matter of spiritual pride, a competitive sport. Being holier than thou easily slides into being more miserable than thou.

Jesus recognized that fasting was part of the spiritual practices of his culture. He saw its value. He began his ministry in the desert, going without food for forty days. I can barely skip a meal. He also recognized that like all kinds of spiritual practices, it can go off the rails as ego creeps in. (Remember: ego is an acronym for edging God out.)

We’re well past Lent. Right now may be a great time to consider what fasting is all about, free of seasonal obligation. It’s not about earning a spiritual merit badge. It’s about taking a look at our lives, at what we value, and what we might do without for a period of time in order to get clarity about what matters. Looking at it that way, assume that no one has any idea of the contours of your fast. Look inside yourself and think about what you might want to give up, maybe for an evening, or a day, or a month, or a season.

Maybe you want to go one day a week without checking social media, or take a break from screen time. That’s not to denigrate these ways of connecting with others or getting work done. It’s simply a way to say that it shouldn’t take over our lives. And it allows us to notice things we may have missed.

Maybe you want to have a day free of news, however you get the news. That’s not to say it’s unimportant to be informed. It’s a Christian duty. But a break from the news might just do some good for the soul, and offer some perspective.

Maybe you want a day of fasting from cussing. That may help you see how powerful speech can be, for good or ill.

Maybe you want a day free of complaining. We all have something to complain about, but how would the rest of the week be changed if we decided to accentuate only the positive for one 24 hour period.

Maybe you want a day free of comforting things like chocolate or Merlot or potato chips, a way to remember that billions of people in our world never get those small pleasures.

Maybe you want to skip a meal, or two, or three. That’s not a diet plan, though it does have health benefits. But it can help us pray for those who have no choice in skipping meals. There are people like that in all of our neighborhoods, not to mention our global village.

Maybe you choose a day without coffee…wait a minute…let’s not get carried away….

Here’s the deal: Nobody else needs to know when you fast. Jesus seems to indicate that if we sense that others need to know, we’ve missed the point. This is not about sitting in the city square in sackcloth and ashes. It’s about a regular check-in assessing the things we value, and focusing on the following:

  • Gratitude: Fasting gives us a chance to count our blessings.
  • Compassion: Fasting gives us a window into millions around us who face deprivation.
  • Clarity: Fasting gives us a chance to see what is really important, really essential.
  • Worship: Fasting gives us a chance to deepen our relationship with God, to trust that all that we need will be provided.

I invite you to. consider some non-Lenten way to put this spiritual discipline to work in your life. Let the practice be just between you and God.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (May 9, 2022)

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Matthew 18:21-35

 

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

More on forgiveness

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
-Matthew 6: 14,15

Does this really mean that when we withhold forgiveness from others, God withholds it from us? Is this a quid pro quo?

In today’s verses from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus underscores what he has already said in the Lord’s Prayer: forgiveness matters. In the gospels, he sets a high bar. (Just take a look at the passage above.) We are to forgive someone seventy seven times, which basically means that there are to be no limits to our extension of forgiveness.

I’m mindful that many people have experienced traumatic injury that makes this strong call to forgiveness tough. Maybe beyond possibility. I can only imagine how hard this might be for some.

Speaking for myself, I’m loaded with limits on how much forgiveness I will extend. I consider the worthiness of the person I consider forgiving. I wonder if I can trust the person not to injure me again. I want accountability and occasionally I want revenge. Some folks seem to be simply irredeemable jerks, undeserving of forgiveness. Forgiveness in their cases would amount to enabling. Am I alone in feeling this way?

Jesus may be simply describing a spiritual dynamic, the reality that we can’t really embrace the fact that we’re forgiven if we’re not willing to forgive other people. But there is also a prescriptive dimension to his teaching, because the Jesus movement is at its heart a ministry about forgiveness. We can’t be part of that movement if we’re not working on forgiveness on a pretty extravagant level.

And if we decide not to forgive someone else, what does that say about us?

It says that we claim to know more about human relationships than God does. Or maybe that we have higher standards than God does. Or maybe that we are a better judge than God is. Or maybe we think that the injuries we’ve experienced are more egregious than what God experienced, the one who went to the cross. If the God of creation is willing to forgive us, for things done and left undone, in thought, word and deed, how can we withhold forgiveness?

It suggests that our own experience of forgiveness has had limited impact on us. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus notes the difference between someone who had been forgiven a great deal, and someone who had been forgiven less. (Luke 7:26-50) It becomes a matter of the heart, as we are deeply moved with love when we really embrace the amazing grace that we are forgiven, accepted, loved.

It ignores the fact that without forgiveness, relationships will remain unresolved, and probably broken. The withholding of forgiveness gets us stuck. It blocks a path forward. A refusal to forgive may indicate that we’re uninterested in moving forward. Indeed, it focuses our energies on the past. It may suggest that we’ve grown comfortable or familiar with our resentments. Maybe we even treasure them. The devil we know and all that.

The Jesus movement is at its heart a ministry about forgiveness, beginning with the news that we have been forgiven. It’s not about perfection. Just take a look at the disciples. Our participation in the Jesus movement depends on our ability to hear Jesus say to us, with arms stretched out on the hard wood of the cross: Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.

In church, before we come forward to receive bread and wine, we confess our sins, including our lack of love for neighbor as self. We can move forward in relationship, in communion, because forgiveness has been declared. In baptism, we find the promise that when we mess up, there is always a way to repent and return to the Lord. There’s always a way to come back. We can be part of opening that way for others. And really, if God opens the door for us to find our way back, where do we get off shutting the door on those who stand in need of our forgiveness?

Will God fail to forgive us if we don’t forgive others? Jesus seems to say that. That’s a hard one for me to wrap my mind around, especially when some injuries to people are so profound and traumatic.

So this Monday morning I’ll have to trust that God will do what is right, and just, and loving. Meanwhile, what is clear to me is that as a follower, a student, a disciple of Jesus, I need to work on the most expansive vision of forgiveness I can muster. Deep down, I know that on the occasions when I’ve been able to do that, I feel freer.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (May 2, 2022)

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Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
-Matthew 6:13 (from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the New Testament)

 

Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil.
– Matthew 6:13 (from J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament )

 

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil (from the Book of Common Prayer)

 

From Scott Peck’s book reflecting on the problem of evil. The book is entitled “People of the Lie”

 

Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself as well as from others than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture

 

Evil people hate the light because it reveals themselves to themselves. … They will destroy the light, the goodness, the love in order to avoid the pain of self-awareness. … evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme.

 

Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.

Rescue us from evil

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
-Matthew 6: 13

We say that praying shapes our believing. So what does this line of the Lord’s Prayer say about what we believe? Along with this line in the prayer which draws our attention to the reality of evil in our lives, I found myself thinking of the baptismal service, and what it says about what we believe about evil.

While baptisms in the Episcopal Church often include an adorable (perhaps clueless) infant in some fancy lace get up, safely doused with a tasteful and limited amount of water, and lots of silver vessels, the service also explores the topic of evil. That says to me that any serious consideration of discipleship, any serious attempt to put faith to work in the world calls for a realistic recognition that we contend with evil. In the liturgy for baptism (p. 302 of the Prayer Book), we renounce evil as it shows up in three particular ways.

First, we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. Images of red, horned, tailed creatures bearing pitchforks aside, as we pray about evil, we recognize a spiritual power that comes to us as tempter. Jesus met that presence in the desert, tempting Jesus to worship something not worth worshipping. I’m told that Margaret Mead had a strong influence on shaping this baptismal service in the 1970’s. While some folks who worked on this service wanted to eliminate language about Satan (“Nobody believes that stuff anymore!”), she said that while some church folk might not believe in Satan, anthropologists do. She argued (successfully) for this language to be preserved in the service. My own take: we dismiss this kind of spiritual force at our own peril.

Second, we renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. I read that as evil in the social and political sphere. G.K. Chesterton said that the doctrine of original sin is one of the few Catholic beliefs that can be confirmed by each day’s headlines. He wrote: “The Church’s doctrine of original sin is the only part of Catholic theology which can be really proved.” Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant, called original sin “empirically verifiable.” News of late confirms those points as we see those powers at play this morning in Mariupol for sure. But we don’t have to look that far. In recent history, from my point of view, that kind of power showed up when leaders decided to separate children from their parents on the southern border, without bothering to keep track of either parents or kids. I see those powers at work in our nation’s history of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. It surfaces in forces of materialism, racism, any number of isms. Where do you see evil surfacing in our common life?

And here’s the kicker, the truly annoying part. As Pogo said: We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us. The third renunciation speaks of sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. We recognize evil in each of our hearts from which we need to be delivered. It’s that coldness of heart, the schadenfreude that feels good when something bad happens to someone else, like smiling while driving on an interstate when cars are stuck in miles long traffic on the road headed in the opposite direction. It’s that hubris that causes us to play God, when we need to tap into the wisdom of Anne Lamott who told her readers: The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you. I thank God that my inner most thoughts are not projected on a screen. It would be ugly to have my all that on full display. Scott Peck put it this way: The major threats to our survival no longer stem from nature without but from our own human nature within. It is our carelessness, our hostilities, our selfishness and pride and willful ignorance that endanger the world.

So we pray for help, knowing that Jesus went through his own time of trial. We pray knowing we can’t face this on our own. We ask for help, maybe echoing the words of the psalmist: Create in me a clean heart. We pray believing that we have not been left alone in the struggle. What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows our every weakness, so we take it to the Lord in prayer. And we pray in the Easter season rejoicing in the conviction that redemption happens. We pray believing that love wins. May God grant us grace to let all those prayers guide us in this coming week.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (April 25, 2022)

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Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
-Matthew 6:12 (From The Message, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the gospel)

 

Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us.
-Matthew 6:12  (From J.B. Phillips paraphrase of the gospel)

 

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
-C.S.Lewis

 

Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
-Mark Twain

 

When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines upon you.
-Jon Krakauer,  Into the Wild

 

Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.
Henri J.M. Nouwen

 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.\\
Nelson Mandela

Enjoy your forgiveness

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
-Matthew 6: 12

Earlier this year, a good friend and spiritual advisor went to be with Jesus. It was always his life goal to be close to Jesus, but I do miss him. He was a great person and a quite successful ad guy. In addition to the award-winning creative work he did for his agency, he lent his talents to churches and non-profits, furthering their missions with wit and wisdom. He did this kind of work for his church in Manhattan. As they charted a course forward through a strategic planning process, he and his team came up with a tagline for the church. The tagline? “Enjoy your forgiveness.” I think of my buddy often, and especially thought of him when we came to this line in the Lord’s Prayer which has to do with forgiveness.

What do you make of it? When it comes to forgiveness, do you think there’s a quid pro quo here? Will we only be forgiven if we forgive others? We can read the prayer that way. Jesus told parables that seemed to warn of forgiveness withheld to folks who had themselves received forgiveness but had denied it to others. I’ll have to admit that such an interpretation makes me a little uneasy. I know there are folks I find really hard to forgive. Some folks I don’t want to forgive. The injury they inflicted actually helps shape my identity. I hang on to the injury. I can get comfortable with that brand of victimhood.

Maybe Jesus’ prayer is more descriptive than prescriptive. Maybe Jesus is not saying “You better forgive or else.” Maybe he’s describing something true about forgiveness, that if we really embrace the fact that we have been forgiven, it will be as natural as the sun coming up to forgive others. We’ll recognize how foolish and unproductive it is to withhold forgiveness, to savor resentments. We’ll see what a waste of mental and spiritual real estate it is to refuse to forgive. Mark Twain put it this way: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

Here’s the deal, as I see it. Everybody has a need to be forgiven, by God and by other people. Each day, I fall short of loving God with whole heart and soul and mind. Each day, I fall short of loving neighbor as self. Sometimes that’s true even before my feet hit the floor when I wake up.

And everybody has a need to extend forgiveness. We all have been done wrong, by those we love the most and those who don’t like us much at all. We all have been done wrong by family members, co-workers, clergy and congregants. You get the idea.

And everybody has a need to seek forgiveness. We’ve all inflicted injury on others, wittingly or unwittingly. We may have blocked out the awareness of those interactions, but they are there.

To sum up, we’re all in this together.

So how does this part of the Lord’s Prayer shape not only our belief, but our way of life in the world? How might it guide us this week? I suspect it begins by getting in touch with the amazing grace that we have been forgiven. As Rob Bell says, “There’s nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Sounds a lot like St. Paul, who said in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Spend some time this week thinking about the fact that whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, whoever you are, you are on the receiving end of God’s love. Forgiveness is available in abundant supply. Amazing.

And if and when that sinks in (sometimes I don’t or won’t or can’t realize it), think about just one way you can extend forgiveness. Think about one person to whom you can extend forgiveness, in your heart, and maybe in conversation with them. And once you’ve done that, ask God to bless that person. Then move on to somebody else (at your own pace). If that’s hard to do, maybe think about the ways others have forgiven under extreme circumstances. I have in mind the forgiveness in evidence in South Africa after apartheid, or among the Amish after children were shot, or in Charleston after that horrific attack on a bible study. Or maybe at the foot of the cross where Jesus extends forgiveness to his executioners.

When it comes to forgiveness, it’s easy to think it’s all about guilt and judgment, shame and shortcoming. Maybe we can shift and see forgiveness as path to freedom, indeed something to enjoy. As Desmond Tutu said, there’s no future without forgiveness. Maybe we can enjoy forgiving others as much as we can enjoy having been forgiven. What would life look like this week if we simply celebrated forgiveness?

-Jay Sidebotham


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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
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Monday Matters (April 18, 2022)

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Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead,and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
— Kurt Vonnegut, The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005

Enough is enough

Give us this day our daily bread.
-Matthew 6: 11

We’ve just wrapped up the season of Lent, which leads to a hearty Alleluia. That season is compared to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They can be a cranky bunch, and especially when they get hungry. I can relate.

In one of their numerous complaint sessions with Moses, they say they have nothing to eat. Moses takes the matter up with the Lord. The next morning, manna appears, a white substance that is somehow like bread. (The name “manna’ literally means something like “what is this stuff?’) It’s just one of the ways that God provides for them on their journey. Each morning there’s a new supply. Folks were invited to gather what they needed for that day. But if they tried to take more than they needed for the day, tried to save it for tomorrow, the manna spoiled by the next morning. This daily bread was a test of their confidence that God would give them what was needed each day, that there would be enough each day, in that day. They had to believe it was enough.

I’m imagining that experience of the children of Israel may have been on Jesus’ mind as he offered the Lord’s Prayer. The children of Israel were formed as a people in that challenging wilderness process. It can seem like they were never satisfied. (I sometimes refer to them as the “What have you done for me lately?” crowd.) It sometimes seems that whatever was provided for them was not enough. Thank God we’re not like them.

So we learn from them that the anxiety that there won’t be enough is nothing new. If you have ever experienced it, what to do? It’s something with which I wrestle, so here are some practices I’m working on. Not that I’ve figured this out. After all, I did use the word “practice.”

Gratitude: Always remembering to give thanks for what I’ve been given, to count blessings. If it’s helpful, make a daily list of five things, ten things. One rabbi I met had her congregation strive for 100 things a day. If we spent our days thinking about that, it would crowd out room for a good chunk of our anxieties.

Contentment: Listening to what St. Paul has to say on the subject: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

Acceptance: Admitting that we are where we are. I know I’ve written in the past about an 8am parishioner in her 90’s, who greeted me at the door each and every week by saying: Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present. I guess she thought I needed to learn that. So here we are. Move on from that place.

Service: One of the great stories about scarcity and abundance is the feeding of the 5000. No one knew how the crowd would be fed. There was not enough. Five loaves and two sardines are presented. They are multiplied into a feast with plenty of leftovers. One interpretation is that Jesus miraculously made all that food. Another interpretation is that people had actually brought some food and stopped hoarding and started to share it once they saw that the young boy gave his bag lunch. When we think about hunger in the world (in fact in our own cities) the issue is not that there is not enough food. There is plenty of food to feed everyone. We just need to get better at sharing.

Courage: A mix of bravery and love (courage is related to the French word for heart). It can call for courage to trust that God will provide. It can call for counter-cultural courage to say we have enough. Enough said.

I don’t know if any of these practices will help. I’m working on such things. Some days I am more successful than others. But I do believe we might all be better off if we could recall that enough is enough. Maybe that’s why Jesus wanted us to pray about it.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (April 11, 2022)

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Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:15

 

(Jesus sends out the disciples, saying:)
Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. Luke 10:9

 

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
Luke 11:20

 

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Luke 17:21

 

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
John 18:36, 37

On earth as it is in heaven

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
-Matthew 6: 10

ILOL. IMHO. LMK. ROFL. These text abbreviations are child’s play compared to my favorite: PBPGINFWMY. Translation: Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet.

When we started RenewalWorks, a ministry with congregations, I told people there was an invisible tattoo on my forehead which read (in elegant typeface): Work-in-progress. I’ve been told that at some point I have to stop calling the work a pilot project. These thoughts were prompted by today’s line from the Lord’s Prayer. After addressing the one whose name we seek to hallow, we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It suggests a holy work-in-progress. God is not finished with us yet. I’m grateful for that.

I once had a young child ask me a question after I preached a sermon on heaven. He asked: Is heaven a place or a feeling? I fumbled through a typical Episcopal answer, like “It’s both.” Or “What do you think?” But whatever, however, wherever it is, it is its advent for which we pray.

The Lord’s Prayer suggests that heaven is the place where God’s will is completely done, where all that resists God’s gracious will has been set aside. In my limited imagination, it is the place where we will finally be able to fulfill the great commandment to love God with whole heart and soul and mind, and to love neighbor as self. Talk about a work in progress. In my imagination it is the place where relationships that have been broken can be healed. Where does your imagination take you?

I take it as holy coincidence that we come to this part of the prayer as we begin Holy Week. The week is filled with questions about what kind of kingdom we’re looking for, what kind of king Jesus might be. Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom (random sampling above), and he spoke in mysterious ways. It is coming. It is here. It is out there. It is within. It is very much a work in progress, as parables indicated, often with mysterious beginnings and small starts like a mustard seed growing into a tree expansive and inclusive enough to provide a place for all the birds of the air. All of them.

In Jesus’ last days (which we observe this week), all kinds of questions about his kingship surfaced, beginning with the procession on Palm Sunday, when crowds hailed him as king. Pilate asked point blank: Are you a king? Jesus responded: My kingdom is not of this world. It’s not what you’ve been expecting. Those who ridiculed and tortured Jesus made fun of his claims to kingship. They didn’t understand. In the end, Pilate insists on a sign on the cross that declares that Jesus is a king.

And so we sing: The king of love my shepherd is. The kingdom for which we pray is marked by love. As Michael Curry repeats: If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. The cross that stands at the end of this week shows us what love looks like. Words of compassion, forgiveness, hope and trust are spoken by Jesus in that crucial moment, with arms stretched out on hard wood to draw us into his saving embrace.

Take this Holy Week as an opportunity to pray for God’s kingdom to come, on earth as in heaven. The news of the day tells us we are not there yet, in oh so many ways. That prayer can be offered not only with our lips but with our lives, as we realize that we are indeed a work in progress, that we have left undone those things that we ought to have done. In each day there are opportunities to grow in love of God and neighbor, a step at a time, a step closer to heaven. Holy Week is a grand time to take those next steps.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (April 4, 2022)

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Your assignment, should you accept:

 

Write a few sentences about what it means to you that God is addressed in prayer as a parent.

 

Write a few sentences about how you envision heaven. A city in the clouds? A frame of mind? An eternal weekend with relatives you don’t particularly like? A never-ending church service? The ultimate place of healing of relationships?

 

Write a few sentences about how you understand what it means to hallow something.

 

Write a few sentences about your hopes for a world in which God’s name would be hallowed.

 

If you take up this assignment (all may, none must, some should), no need to show it to anyone. But that might be exactly what you want to do. It may be a moment of accountability that will help you grow in spirit, and help you in your observation of Holy Week, and help somebody else.

 

So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Homework

Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
-Matthew 6: 9

I have a friend who told me he would only come to my bible study if there was no homework. He probably won’t like this Monday Matters.

After one of her first sermons in a new church, a friend got a call from a parishioner to offer feedback on her sermon. The caller commended the preacher, but said that her frequent references to Jesus in her sermon was not the way they talked in that church. Let that sink in.

I was reminded that in our work with congregations, we find that many Episcopalians define themselves in terms of what they are not, and more to the point, who they are not. As we discuss questions of faith, they will often tell me that that is not how Episcopalians speak. When that happens, one of our wise counselors tells folks: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?”

We’ve been reading Jesus’ teaching about prayer. It could be easy to focus on the things we’re not supposed to do in prayer, e.g., make it showy, make it a public spectacle, go on and on. As we continue in reflection on the Sermon on the Mount this morning, we find that Jesus gets very specific about how we should pray. He offers what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer included in every liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer.

In Luke’s gospel, the Lord’s Prayer is offered in response to the disciples’ request that Jesus teach them to pray. The disciples ask for a prayer, noting that John the Baptist had given his disciples a prayer. (Luke 11.1) It seems like that prayer given to those disciples was a mark of their identity, a sign of who they followed, a sense of who they were. There are other prayers that do that kind of thing. The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr, provides a sense of identity for the recovery movement. The prayer attributed to St. Francis (“Make me an instrument of your peace…”) provides identity to any number of communities. Is there a prayer that reflects your identity?

With that question in mind, let’s dive into the Lord’s Prayer, bit by bit.

Our Father: The prayer begins by noting who we are talking to. The prayer implies at the outset that this is about relationship, a relationship of a particular kind. It is not the prayer of king and subject, slave and master, employee and boss, judge and defendant. It’s the personal relationship of parent and child. And while in our broken world the parent-child relationship is not always marked by love and care, can we presume that Jesus intended the most loving, gracious relationship, maybe like the father in the parable of the prodigal son?

In heaven: It’s a prayer that speaks of location, offered to a Father in heaven. That says to me that heaven is not some far off place, but much more accessible than we might think. I have a feeling we’ll talk more about how we understand heaven next week.

Hallowed be thy name: On one level, it’s a declarative statement, a way of acknowledging God’s holiness, God’s greatness. We can translate the word hallowed as set apart as sacred, or consecrated. When I studied at Union Seminary, I learned of an Old Testament professor so deeply honored by students that they took off their shoes and left them in the hallway outside the lecture hall to honor this holy man. How much more might we honor the God of creation?

(As something of an aside, I heard of a child in one of our parishes who thought the prayer began: Our Father which art in heaven, how did you know my name? Maybe that child really knew something about the mystery that calls us to this hallowing.)

There’s another way to read this prayer to hallow God’s name. It’s an expression of hope, that God’s name would be increasingly hallowed in a world where that is not the case. I can’t help but think that if God’s name were hallowed among all people, however that name is understood, that our world would be in a better place. That is not necessarily a prayer for people to become religious, because it seems that some of the most religious people are the ones who miss the boat, in Jesus’ estimation. It’s simply a prayer that all people will recognize that our common life unfolds in the presence of a power greater than ourselves, a power whose character is love.

Take this upcoming week as a chance to get ready for Holy Week. Reflect on your own relationship to God, your vision of heaven, your understanding of hallowing God’s name, what it would mean for our global community. If you feel so inclined, take on the homework assignment in the column on the left as a way to prepare for this important week in our common life.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters: March 28, 2022

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Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.

 

Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. …
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.

 

So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Empty phrases

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
-Matthew 6: 7,8

In recent readings of Morning Prayer, a few words that I’ve read many times hit me like I’d never heard them before. Does that every happen to you? We begin the confession by saying: Most merciful God. I got to thinking about what it means to begin that liturgy, to begin my day, to live each day in the awareness of the presence of a merciful God. For much of the time, I’m a functional atheist, imagining I can bring God into the picture when I want, when needed. The rest of the time, I’ll run things, thank you very much.

My prayer life exhibits that interest in being in control. (Hear the gospel according to Anne Lamott: What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.) We sometimes approach prayer as filibuster, talking endlessly, repeating words somewhat mindlessly, not doing a lot of listening, thinking God will pay attention to us because we talk a lot or craft the language well. We sometimes approach prayer as shopping list, putting in our order like Doordash, waiting to have wishes fulfilled. God as valet. We sometimes approach prayer with magical thinking, a celestial Aladin’s lamp. Often we end up disappointed when wishes are not fulfilled. All of which is to say that there lots of ways for our prayers to be empty phrases.

Jesus spent a fair amount of time praying. He also spent a fair amount of time teaching about prayer, presumably because we need it. He was mindful that there are some ways to pray that are less edifying, some ways that we pray that are more about us than anything else, resulting again in prayers filled with empty phrases.

So how can we come to greater fullness, less emptiness in our prayers?

We can begin by keeping it simple, confident that we actually don’t have to clue God in to what’s going on. In my work in the church, people often feel incapable or unqualified to pray in front of others. That’s why clergy get called on to offer the prayer in a group setting. I found one simple way to get around that. It’s about filling in the blanks:

I thank God that….

I ask God that…

If you’re feeling stuck in your prayer life, you might want to see if this simple approach helps. Anybody can do it.

The call to simplicity in prayer is what I love about Anne Lamott’s description of what it means to pray. Echoing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, she says you don’t need tons of words. In fact, you only need three: thanks, help and wow.

Thanks: Meister Eckhardt said that “if the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Expressions of thanks in all circumstances place us in a frame of mind where we recognize God’s gracious activity in our lives, in our world. What are you thankful for this morning?

Help: It’s a matter of recognizing our absolute dependence, which is how Paul Tillich described faith. It’s the recognition that we can’t do it on our own, that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. Where do you need help today?

Wow: We often fail to notice miracles around us. Here’s Anne Lamott’s take on it: “It’s sort of like when the Wizard of Oz — when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ So where’s the wow factor for you this Monday?

It can really be quite simple, however we pray. Our hearts can be moved into deeper relationship with God in silence, through music, with polished collects of the Prayer Book, with fumbling syntax, with sighs too deep for words, with tears as we consider the brokenness of our world. It’s all offered in the confidence, the amazing grace that a relationship with God is accessible and worth pursuing, and that God knows what we need before we ask. A bit more from Ms. Lamott: “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”

God aims to provide what we need, as loving parent. Let’s ditch empty phrases and the filibuster and the wish lists and aim to offer prayers with fullness and simplicity. And love.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters: March 21, 2022

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And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for fifteen minutes of fame! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.   

          Matthew 6:5-6 (The Message)

 

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff.
Timothy Keller

Do good

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-Matthew 6:5-6

Those of a certain age may remember a scene from “Sound of Music” when the Von Trapp children have been hazing the new governess, Maria (Julie Andrews) on her first day. They were so mean. When they all sit down for dinner, Maria is invited to say grace, a prayer during which she references the unusual ways she has been welcomed into the household. One by one, the children dissolve into tears of shame. A classic example of what I’ve heard described as horizontal prayers.

Such prayers sound something like this: “Lord, I pray that my sibling will stop being such a jerk.” “Lord, I pray that this particular vestry member will have the humility to see how ill-informed his opinion is.” “Lord, I pray that all of us around this dinner table will come to appreciate the Christian point of view on (name the social issue).” You get the idea. It seems that according to Jesus, people using prayer (or any religious practice) in this way is one mark of hypocrisy, masking our own agenda behind piety, bless their hearts.

These days, I hear all kinds of reasons why folks don’t go to church, why there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nones (no religious affiliation) and dones (those who have bailed). I can see reasons why organized religion loses appeal.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, recently commissioned a survey to explore what people think about Jesus. It’s called the “Jesus in America” study. He said of this study: “We are encouraged that the research shows Americans still find Jesus compelling (editorial comment: phew!) but we also see that the behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians. It’s all Christians.”

The study included questions about what people think about the church. Christian respondents described Christians as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful. Non-Christians had a different perspective. The characteristics they identified were judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant and, you guessed it, hypocritical. This squares with one of the most common reasons people tell me they have given up on church. They say that they don’t go to church because it’s just filled with hypocrites. To which I respond: “Guilty as charged.”

Jesus spent a lot of time contending with hypocrites. A lot of his most charged exchanges were with really religious people. That should give pause to those of us who are clergy, among others. As a result, the really religious people of Jesus’ day were among those who worked hardest to get rid of him.

As I try to understand and embrace his teaching, I sense his fundamental desire for people to have a deep and authentic relationship with God, a relationship that would be sustaining and joyful. I think he recognized that one of the things that get in the way is worrying about how we come off, how we appear, what other people think of us. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to avoid that.

But perhaps it’s possible if we try his experiment, taking our prayers to some quiet place where we get to realize that prayer is simply a conversation between us and God (an amazing, miraculous privilege when you think about it). It’s similar to the experiment we explored last week, giving alms/doing good in secret, in privacy, so we can be liberated from public opinion, so we can be liberated from the seductive power of our own ego. (After all, we can think of ego as an acronym: edging God out.)

All of it is a way for us to come to a deeper relationship with God, which is key not only to love of God, but also key to love of neighbor, and ultimately key to love of self. Grab some quiet prayer time this week. See what happens.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect is an online conversation series presented by RenewalWorks to hear from thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.

A Story of Transformation
Thursday, March 24th, 7-8pm EDT | Zoom

We hope you will join us to hear how one church’s focus on spiritual growth has transformed its congregation. 

We invite you to an intimate discussion with Rev. Greg Bezilla of Holy Trinity Church in New Jersey, on how RenewalWorks focused his leadership and the parish on deepening their love of God and neighbor. He will discuss what concerns initially encouraged him to embark on RenewalWorks in 2018 and how the church worked to implement the RenewalWorks’ Leadership Team recommendations over the subsequent 3 years. In Fall 2021, Holy Trinity returned to RenewalWorks as a way to measure those efforts. Their results were indeed different and included growth in many important measures.

We are excited to share an interview with this church’s leadership discussing their inspiring journey of rejuvenation. Please join us.

We hope you can join us for this Zoom gathering. Click here to sign up for RW: Connect emails and you will receive the link to join the webinar the day before.